Kinetic Sculpture Race

Kinetic sculpture races are organized contests of human-powered amphibious all-terrain works of art. The original event, the Kinetic Grand Championship in Humboldt County, California, is also called the ‘Triathlon of the Art World’ because art and engineering are combined with physical endurance during a three day cross country race that includes sand, mud, pavement, a bay crossing, a river crossing and major hills.

The concept of kinetic sculpture racing originated in Ferndale, California in 1969 when local sculptor Hobart Brown ‘improved’ the appearance of his son’s tricycle by welding on two additional wheels and other embellishments. Seeing this ‘Pentacycle,’ fellow artist Jack Mays challenged him to a race.

Others later joined in creating a field of twelve machines that inaugurated the first race down Ferndale’s Main Street during the town’s annual art festival. Neither Hobart Brown nor Mays won; instead, the first winner was Bob Brown of Eureka, California whose sculpture was a smoke-emitting Turtle that laid eggs. The race received broad publicity when photos of Congressman Don Clausen riding the Pentacycle were seen nationally.

The event was repeated in 1970, and the course subsequently expanded to include cross-country terrain. When affiliated races were initiated in other cities and the course grew, the Ferndale event became the World Championship, and has grown into the largest single event in Humboldt County. Machines tackled mud, sand, water, gravel and pavement. Stan Bennett’s book ‘Crazy Contraptions’ chronicles the first five years of the race. In the early 1980s, Hobart Brown was referred to as the ‘Glorious Founder of the Kinetic Race’ in a spectators’ brochure.

As the 1980s ended, Calistoga Mineral water company began sponsoring the race, which adopted a family-friendly approach. Soon after, Yakima Products inc. a local manufacturer of sports racks and car storage boxes became interested in the race. The sponsors’ financial support—especially the creation of the Kinetic Lab in Arcata—took the race to a new level of art and engineering. The Lab’s 83-foot-long sculpture Nightmare of the Iguana was the longest ever raced.

During the 1990s, the race matured. Many contestants were younger than the race, having grown up with its philosophy, ‘Adults having fun so children will want to grow older,’ coined by Brown. As age and crippling arthritis limited his activities, he sold the race rights, the kinetic chicken logo and the trademark ‘For the Glory’ slogan to a new not-for-profit agency called the Humboldt Kinetic Association in 2002.

Changing economics caused companies to end their sponsorship. With no major sponsor and several years of county budget cutbacks reflecting statewide budget difficulties. In early 2007, Humboldt Kinetic Association abjured responsibility for the race. Race volunteers rapidly created Kinetic Universe, a new not-for-profit, to manage the 2007 race. In 2009, the New Belgium Brewing Company became a sponsor.

Early in the history of the Championship, contestants began to select an annual ‘Rutabaga Queen.’ Other Kinetic Races select different botanical Queens, including the Rose-Hips Queen of Port Townsend, Washington. In Australia, having already a real queen, the race selects a Goddess to rule over the festivities instead.

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